If you plan to start a career in truck driving, you must know all the CDL license requirements for a smooth entry into one of the largest US revenue streams, totaling $791.7 billion in 2019 through the transportation of up to 70 percent of the country’s goods.
With over 13 percent of all the registered vehicles in the US being commercial trucks, and with the continued growth in e-commerce, you can never go wrong with applying for a commercial driver’s license as the demand for truck drivers continues growing.
But where exactly should you start? And what are the requirements to successfully obtain your CDL to enable you to find work as a truck driver? Here’s a detailed overview of everything you need to know of the requirements for getting the coveted CDL.
What is a CDL License?
A CDL license is a driver’s license you must have in the US to operate a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) for commercial purposes. CDL means commercial driver’s license, with the short form used chiefly for ease of communication.
Such a CMV can be any large and heavy single vehicle or a combination of vehicles whose gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of over 26,001 pounds or a lighter vehicle for carrying people.
Vehicles placarded to carry hazardous waste and materials also belong in the CMV category.
Each CDL license contains the following information:
- The words CDL or commercial driver’s license
- The driver’s full name, mailing address, and signature
- The driver’s height, date of birth, and sex
- The driver’s color photograph
- The state license number
- The name of the state issuing the license
- The date the license is issued and the date it is expected to expire
- The endorsements for which the license holder is qualified
- The class or classes of vehicles the holder is permitted to operate
- Acknowledgment of restriction for air brakes if it is issued.
Types of CDL Licenses
There are three types of CDL licenses based on the class of vehicles the license holder is authorized to operate. These include:
1. Class A CDL License
2. Class B CDL License
3. Class C CDL License
We will discuss each of these three CDL types below.
What is a CDL Permit?
A CDL permit is a document issued by a state to an aspiring CDL licensee to authorize them to practice driving or to operate a commercial motor vehicle. It is commonly known as the CLP, which is short for commercial learner’s permit.
The CLP is like an interim driver’s license, allowing you to start learning and practicing how to drive a CMV safely under the instruction of a sponsor or a truck driving school instructor, both of whom must be current CDL license holders.
To obtain a CDL permit, you must pass a vision test and a CLP knowledge test with a minimum of 30 questions. You must answer at least 80 percent of the questions correctly to pass the test.
What is a Class A CDL?
A Class A CDL is a driver’s license that allows you to operate any combination of vehicles whose gross vehicle weight rating is 26,001 pounds or more, provided the vehicle towed weighs over 10,000 pounds.
With a Class A CDL, you can operate various vehicles such as flatbeds, semi-tractor trailers, livestock carriers, trailers and trucks (including triple and double trailers), and tank vehicles.
What is a Class B CDL?
A Class B CDL is a driver’s license that allows you to commercially operate any single vehicle whose gross vehicle weight rating is 26,001 pounds or more or any such vehicle towing another that weighs less than 10,000 pounds.
With a Class B CDL and the applicable endorsements, you can operate vehicles such as:
What is a Class C CDL?
A Class C CDL is a driver’s license that allows you to commercially operate a vehicle or combination of vehicles that carries 16 or more passengers, together with the driver, or any vehicle placarded by federal regulations to transport hazardous waste or materials.
With the right endorsements, a Class C CDL allows you to drive passenger vans, small HazMat vehicles, and any combination vehicles that do not belong to Class A or Class B.
Minimum Requirements to Apply for a CDL
Your state will ask you to meet certain requirements to apply successfully and obtain a commercial driver’s license.
The requirements include proof of identity and residence, age verification, self-certification, passing tests and endorsements, DOT medical test and certification, English language comprehension, clean driving record and previous driving experience, applicable fees, and a commercial learner’s permit.
Let’s take a close look at these requirements in the sections below.
How Old Do You Have to Be to Get a CDL?
You must be at least 18 years old in most states to apply for a CLP and CDL for intrastate commercial driving (driving within one state only). If you are applying for intrastate commercial driving to traverse different states, you must be at least 21 years old.
Additionally, you must be at least 21 years of age to operate a hazardous materials commercial motor vehicle commercially.
Commercial Learner’s Permit
You must first pass a CLP knowledge test to obtain a learner’s permit that will allow you to begin training as a commercial driver.
Proof of Identity and Residence
You may require a combination of documents to prove your identity and residence in the US. Some of the documents accepted include:
- Birth certificate
- Green card
- Social security card or a provable social security number (SSN)
The required documents are for proving legal citizenship or permanent residency in the country. Furthermore, you’ll be required to pass all the applicable background checks.
Comprehension of the English Language
You must prove that you can read, speak, and write in proper English to be allowed to obtain a CDL. Written exams are offered only in English, plus you’ll use the language on the road and to complete records if you get an entry.
Clean Driving Record and Prior Driving Experience
As a CDL license applicant, you must have prior driving experience of at least one or two years, depending on the state.
You will be required to produce a valid Class D driver’s license – the regular or standard, non-commercial driver’s license. Your regular driver’s license has to be in good standing with no revocations or suspensions in any other state.
Photo credit. fortis.edu
In addition, you must certify that you are not subject to any disqualification by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and that you don’t hold a driving license from more than one jurisdiction or state.
You must surrender your regular state driver’s license once you obtain your commercial driver’s license.
Furthermore, you must indicate the names of every state in which you are authorized to operate any motor vehicle for ten years before the current CDL application.
Medical and Physical Requirements
As a CDL license applicant, you must take and pass a medical test as required by the Department of Transport (DOT). The test has to be conducted by a medical examiner recognized by the FMCSA.
Upon passing, the certificate the examiner gives you is valid for only two years, which is long enough to have obtained your CDL.
The medical requirements for CDL include self-certification and physical checks, as discussed below.
Your state requires you to complete a CDL self-certification exercise that involves telling the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) or the State Driver Licensing Agency (SDLA) the type of commerce you plan to operate within a state or across state lines.
You are also supposed to tell the RMV or SDLA whether or not your commercial truck driving career requires you to have a medical certificate.
In some states like Massachusetts, failure to self-certify causes your CDL to be downgraded to the regular Class D driver’s license.
The process is called self-certification because the driver themselves determines the self-certification category they are in based on their driving information.
There are four categories for self-certification:
- Intrastate Excepted: The applicant is an intrastate excepted driver and does not have to meet their state’s medical requirements. (Is excepted from the medical requirements.)
- Intrastate Non-excepted: The applicant is an intrastate non-excepted driver and is required to meet the state’s medical requirements.
- Interstate Excepted: The applicant is an Interstate excepted driver and is not required to fulfill the Federal DOT medical requirements.
- Interstate Non-excepted: The applicant is an Interstate non-excepted driver and must fulfill the Federal DOT medical requirements.
Besides self-certification, you will be expected to take and pass various physical attributes tests such as vision, hearing, and blood pressure to check your physical fitness for truck driving work. You may be exempted from some of these tests in some situations.
- You must have a field of vision (peripheral) of at least 70° in the horizontal meridian in each eye.
- You must have a distant visual acuity of at least 20/40 on the Snellen test chart in each eye when not using corrective lenses. With corrective lenses, your visual acuity should be corrected to 20/40 (on the Snellen chart) separately in each eye.
You can operate a CMV if you:
- First, perceive a forced whispered voice in your better ear at not less than five feet with or without the use of a hearing aid or if tested using an audiometric device.
- Do not have an average hearing loss in your better ear greater than 40 dB (decibels) at 500, 1,000, and 2,000 Hz (hertz) with or without a hearing aid when the audiometric device is calibrated to the American National Standard Z24.5-1951.
3. Blood Pressure
- Your blood pressure has to be below 140/90
- For Stage 1 Hypertension, the blood pressure should be between 140/90 and 159/99. The medical certificate for this is applicable for only one year and is renewable every 12 months.
- For Stage 2 Hypertension, the blood pressure should be between 160/100 and 179/109. The medical certificate lasts for 3 months, and you will be disqualified if the pressure is not under control after the 3 months, until when it is in control. You have to renew every 12 months.
- For Stage 3 Hypertension, you will be automatically disqualified if your blood pressure is at or beyond 180/110. If you get your blood pressure under control, you will get a 6-month certification that you should renew every 6 months.
- You may control your blood pressure with or without medication.
4. Sleep Apnea
You may be disqualified if you have sleep apnea.
5. Blood Sugar Levels and Diabetes
On September 19, 2018, the FMCSA revised its prior Diabetes regulations to allow subsequently, a person with a stable insulin regimen and properly controlled ITDM (Insulin-treated Diabetes Mellitus) to qualify to operate a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce.
The new regulation allows an acknowledged examiner of the FMCSA National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners to consult with the treating clinician of an ITDM individual to examine and determine whether to grant the individual a medical examiner’s certificate to operate a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce.
The certificate issued to the ITDM individual will be valid for a maximum of 12 months.
6. Physical Impairments (and the Skill Performance Evaluation)
If you have a physical impairment, such as missing or impaired limbs (a foot, leg, finger, hand, or arm), you may qualify to become a CMV driver by passing the Skill Performance Evaluation (SPE).
The SPE test allows you to obtain an SPE certificate, a “variance” document you must carry at all times when driving a CMV.
Knowledge and Skills Test
You must take and pass written tests and a road skills test to get a CDL license. The written exams may vary from state to state, but there are general guidelines all the states have to follow. For example, you must correctly answer at least 80 percent of the questions to pass.
Written Exams to Take
Obtaining a CDL requires you to take and pass the following tests:
1. CLP knowledge test, with an application fee of $30
2. Combination vehicle exam if you are a Class A CLP applicant
3. Either the HazMat (H) endorsement test or the Passenger (P) endorsement test if you are a Class C CLP applicant.
4. Any or a combination of the following endorsement tests, depending on the CLP/CDL you want:
- Air Brakes endorsement
- Hazardous Materials (HazMat) endorsement
- Tank (N) endorsement
- Passenger (P) endorsement
- Doubles/Triples endorsement
- School Bus (S) endorsement
You will pay $10 for each endorsement test done the same day or $30 for each endorsement test done on a different day. The fee may change from state to state.
You will sit for each endorsement test for 20-30 minutes, depending on the number of questions in each. For example, an Air Brakes endorsement test in Massachusetts has 25 questions and lasts for 25 minutes.
How Many Questions Are on the CDL Permit Test?
The CDL permit test has 50 multiple-choice questions. You must answer at least 80 percent of them correctly to pass the test. The test lasts for 60 minutes. The minimum number of questions the test should have is 30.
Road Skills Test
The road skills test is part of the 3-prong skills test, with the other two being the 40-minute or so vehicle inspection test and the 30-minute or so basic control skills test.
The road skills test lasts for 45-60 minutes, during which the examiner assesses your driving skills and the ability to navigate and complete various maneuvers.
The test takes place in an inspected vehicle belonging to the same class as the CDL you expect to get.
You’ll be required to pay $35 for the road test in most states.
What Disqualifies You from Getting a CDL?
Four grounds may disqualify you from getting a CDL, namely major offenses, serious traffic violations, railroad-highway crossing offenses, and out-of-service order violations.
Some major offenses include:
- Leaving an accident scene. In some states, leaving an accident scene is punishable as a misdemeanor if it only involves light destruction of property or as a felony if the accident involves serious injury or death.
- Operating a CMV when you have an alcohol concentration above 0.04.
- Using a CMV to commit a felony other than one that involves the manufacture, dispensation, and distribution of a controlled substance.
Some serious traffic violations include:
- Excessive speeding at any speed of 15MPH or over above the allowed speed limit
- Changing traffic lanes improperly
- Reckless driving as outlined by the local or state laws or regulations
- Failure to keep enough driving distance between you and the vehicle ahead.
Railroad-Highway crossing offenses for which you may be CDL-disqualified include:
- Failing to negotiate a crossing successfully due to insufficient undercarriage clearance
- Failing to stop at a crossing when you are expected to stop before driving through
- Failing to obey the directions of an enforcement officer or a traffic control device at the crossing.
You will be disqualified if you violate an unexpired out-of-order service by driving a CMV. You must wait for your CLP or CDL to be reinstated. Otherwise, you will be fined at least $2,000 in civil penalty and $5,000 if you commit additional offenses.
CDL Requirements by State
Despite the considerable uniformity in the general requirements to get a CDL license, the requirements may vary from state to state because different states adopt the national guidelines differently.
Below is a list of states for checking the specific requirements of various states.
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Carolina
Although there is a basic national CDL license requirements guideline, you should check with your state to see the specific requirements you must fulfill to get your valid commercial driver’s license.
You must ensure you fully meet all the requirements from medical to tests to proof of identity and previous driving experience. The first step is to ensure you are at least 18 years old for an intrastate CDL license and that your identification documents are in order.
People Also Ask
Here’s a quick overview of some common questions people ask about getting a commercial driver’s license. We hope this section answers any burning questions you may have on the requirements or the entire CDL process.
When is a CDL Required?
A CDL is required in the following instances:
- When driving a single vehicle whose gross vehicle weight rating of 26,001 pounds, or any such vehicle that tows another weighing less than 10,000 pounds.
- When operating any combination vehicle with a GVWR above 26,001 pounds, with the vehicle towed weighing over 10,000 pounds.
- When driving any lighter vehicle meant for carrying 16 or more passengers, including the driver.
- When operating any vehicle for which federal laws require a HazMat placard.
Can You Take the CDL Test Online?
You can’t take your CDL test online. The general knowledge section of the test is required to be written, and you must avail yourself in person to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to complete it.
Some locations may allow computer testing, but that’s pointless since you still have to complete it in person at the DMV.
However, you can take as many CDL practice tests as you want from the many legitimate sources on the web just by searching for them.
Can a Commercial Driver Have More Than One CDL?
You can’t have more than one CDL license in one state or multiple states. This regulation was put in place to prevent commercial drivers from committing felonies in one state and getting a CDL in another state after disqualification or permanent ban in another state.
However, if you are at least 21 years old, you can obtain an interstate CDL license that allows you to cross different state lines for commercial driving.
How Can I Get a CDL Without Going to School?
You can get a CDL without going to a school for formal CDL training by learning under a sponsor. The sponsor can be a friend or anyone you are on good terms with who can teach you to operate a CMV using their CMV or your own.
The downside to this arrangement is that you will be less employable as most employers want a truck driver to have gone through formal CDL training under FMCSA guidelines.
If the cost of driving school is your biggest worry, you can seek a government CDL tuition loan or join a trucking company that offers a good paid CDL training program.
Furthermore, there are two FMCSA restrictions.. An “M” restriction applies if you have a Class A CDL but take the school bus or passenger endorsement test in a Class B vehicle, or an “N” restriction if you have a Class B CDL but take the school bus or passenger endorsement test in a Class C vehicle.
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How Long Does It Take to Get a CDL?
It takes three to eight weeks or as long as six months to get your CDL. Some trucking companies and truck driving schools have accelerated CDL programs that you can complete in as little as three weeks. The average national duration is seven weeks.
If you take CDL training part-time, you may take up to six months to get a CDL license.
Do You Need a CDL to Drive a School Bus?
You need a CDL with a Passenger (P) endorsement and School Bus (S) endorsement in Class A or Class B to drive a school bus in the US.
You have to take the Class B or Class A test, air brakes test, passenger endorsement test, and then the school bus endorsement test to be allowed to drive a school bus.
However, different states have different definitions of what a school bus is and is not.